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CPS asks high schoolers to listen to, and record, their elders this Thanksgiving

Teacher Alex Fernandez explains an interviewing exercise to his history students Thursday at World Language High School. His students and others in Chicago Public Schools have been asked to record an interview with a parent or grandparent this month for "Great Thanksgiving Listen," a national oral history project by StoryCorps. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

This Thanksgiving, Chicago parents might want to let their teens bring their smartphones to the dinner table.

History teachers at every high school in Chicago have been asked to assign students to record an interview with a parent or grandparent for “The Great Thanksgiving Listen,” a national oral history project that kicked off Thursday at World Language High School in Little Village.

The project hopes to add 65,000 oral histories to the StoryCorps archives in the Library of Congress — most recorded on a new StoryCorps smartphone app. Those new histories would come from interviews conducted by students across the U.S., StoryCorps founder Dave Isay told students in teacher Alex Fernandez’s Contemporary World History class Thursday morning.

“We had this completely crazy idea … of asking every U.S. History teacher in the country, and social studies teacher, to assign their students to record a grandparent or other elder” over Thanksgiving weekend, Isay said in an interview outside Fernandez’s classroom. “So, theoretically, we can honor an entire generation.”

StoryCorps, a non-profit founded by former National Public Radio documentarian Isay, has operated recording booths for a dozen years, including one located at the Chicago Cultural Center. The new smartphone app launched a few months ago, and Isay said StoryCorps contacted CPS only two weeks ago about launching The Great Thanksgiving Listen in Chicago.

Fernandez’s classes have spent about a day a week learning interviewing technique and recording and editing skills, using the StoryCorps U classroom materials. Fernandez has incorporated StoryCorps into his classes after he and World Language alum Noe Rueda taped a StoryCorps entry in 2011 that landed on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson, who was overheard gushing to Isay about her affection for NPR and StoryCorps, said the district was on board almost as soon as Isay reached out.

Jackson said she would like to see the StoryCorps U program extended to more CPS schools.

“The reason I’m excited is you get a chance to tell your story,” Jackson said. “No one can tell your story better than you, and it’s a skill that you have to hone very early.”

Junior Samuel Vazquez said he’s planning to interview his father over Thanksgiving.

“I already know pretty much everything about him,” said Vazquez, 16. “I’m just going to ask him what he’s thankful for, what he’s proud of.”

Download the StoryCorps app at

Dave Isay, founder of the national oral history project StoryCorps, talks to history students Thursday at World Language High School in Little Village. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times